There’s been somewhat of a shift in the world of skincare lately. The days when we were reliant on big brand authorities to tell us how to take care of our skin are starting to become a distant memory. Instead, consumers have taken matters into their own hands.
How? Well, until now - and for the majority of us - the world of skincare has (and can still be) a confusing place. Scientific claims, complicated jargon and miracle-working promises - the industry is guilty of all of them and although most of us have experienced the joy and transformative-qualities of a truly brilliant skin product, it’s all too easy to end up disappointed.
These days, consumers want to feel empowered - which means arming themselves with as much information as possible, understanding the ins-and-outs of skincare (instead of just putting our trust into magazines and cosmetic brands) and ultimately making wiser, more informed choices. The result of this has been a deeper understanding of what we put on our skin.
In the spirit of this new mood, we have decided to shed an expert light on one of the most current, talked-about topics in the industry: acids. Although these ‘holy grail’ ingredients have always been around, the spotlight seems to be shining brighter than ever on them. The reason? Their versatility, proven skin-improving qualities and visible effectiveness.
The idea of acid on our skin can conjure images of cosmetic face peels or harsh formulas, however used in the right way, naturally occurring acids are beneficial for every beauty routine. Some of the most common ones work as light chemical exfoliants; dissolving skin cells and increasing skin cell turnover. However every acid is different. Some can work more gently, lightly removing a layer of dead skin for a brighter, smoother complexion. Others are more powerful, penetrating deeper and helping break buildup that causes acne and congestion. Some even get right between the skin cells to specifically target the signs of ageing, or simply offering a hit of hydration.
Acids can be found in everything from serums to face washes and many of them are fruit or plant based or even naturally occurring in the body. Elsie Rutterford is one half of the Clean Beauty Co duo - two woman on a mission to get us using (and understanding) natural beauty products without compromising on high performance. Their BYBI skincare range is 100% natural and the girls are experts in the field, as well as knowing a thing or two about acids.
“Acids in skincare are basically molecules derived from a number of sources that have the ability to neutralise pH, exfoliate, repair, hydrate and brighten, depending on the acid in question” explains Elsie, “Whist many acids in skincare will be synthesised, it is possible and pretty easy to source naturally-derived acids which have a host of fantastic properties for all skin types.”
To learn more, we’ve put together a handy guide to each group of acids you are most likely to find in skincare. What do they do? How do they work? And are they right for me? Hopefully we can arm you with the answers.
AHAs - known more formally as Alpha Hydroxy Acids - are types of exfoliating chemical compounds. They can either by naturally occurring or synthetic and natural versions are often derived from sugars, fruit, nuts and milk. Unlike traditional physical exfoliants, AHAs work by gently sloughing off the top layer of dead skin cells, to reveal smoother, brighter skin. AHAs can be found in plenty of products - however the most effective are those that aren’t wash-off, i.e. potent serums and moisturisers. Generally, it’s thought that AHAs can work wonders on most skin types and used in a low enough concentration (experts advise 10% or less for at-home use) they shouldn’t cause irritation.
So who benefits from them the most? Elsie advises that “they are good for all skin types but they are often used in products for maturer skin or those suffering from areas of sun damage, due to their ability to promote fresh, new skin on top.”
Individuals who suffer from breakouts can potentially see good results with AHAs as they help clear blocked pores and get rid of trapped bacteria. As they act on the cells on the surface of the skin, acne scarring, dark spots and fine lines can all reduce over time with regular use of AHAs. Glycolic, citric and lactic acid are all forms of AHAs and each have their individual perks. Glycolic acid is ideal for acne-sufferers as it helps control oil production in the skin. Citric acid - used in moderation - can be a brilliant brightener, and lactic acid is antimicrobial as well as helping reduce pigmentation. Whatever you do, don’t forget to apply an SPF when using any products containing acid, as your skin will be more susceptible to sunlight.
BHAs - know more formally as Beta Hydroxy Acids, i.e. Salicylic Acid. BHAs are multi-tasking wonder ingredients that have been used in skincare for decades due to their effective exfoliating abilities and anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
“BHAs are often used in skincare for acne-prone or oily skin” explains Elsie, “They are able to penetrate the skin deeper than AHAs, in turn unclogging pores as well as exfoliating, making them fantastic for the treatment of blemishes.”
By penetrating into the pore lining of the skin (instead of just the surface), BHAs are able to dissolve clogs and neutralise bacteria that can potentially lead to breakouts on the skin. So - you guessed it - products containing BHAs can be ideal for problem skin, particularly if you suffer from oiliness. However they can sometimes irritate skin, so Elsie recommends introducing them slowly (BHAs are great in a face wash) and “always patch test!”
Hyaluronic Acid seems to have been a buzzword on the lips of every beauty expert and fanatic alike for a while now. It’s with good reason. This acid naturally occurs in the body, however we stop producing it as we age which is why introducing a Hyaluronic Acid-based product to your regime can be a real long-term saviour. HA’s primary purpose is simple: hydration!
“It is THE best hydrating ingredient in skincare” says Elsie, “It has the ability to hold up to 1000 x its weight in water and is amazing for all skin types - we use it as our main ingredient in BYBI’s Mega Mist.”
Unlike its corrosive counterparts, Hyaluronic Acid is gentle and moisturising, “so can comfortably be used in higher quantities” explains Elsie. It can have an almost instant, plumping effect and is fantastic when used in serums or moisturisers. The other great thing about HA is its naturally lightweight texture that hydrates without clogging - so sensitive or problem skin types needn’t worry too much about this one. It’s Elsie’s hands-down favourite of the acids family and we can see why.
You may not have heard of Retinoic Acid but you may be familiar with Retinol. The acid version is what Retinol (a powerful anti-ageing ingredient) is converted to when applied to the skin. It’s also a form of Vitamin A, a great tool for healthy skin cell production and growth.
There’s been a lot of research over the years into the effects of Retinoids on the skin and the general takeaway is their age-busting super powers. Regular use can help increase skin firmness, decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as evening out skin tone and smoothing the surface. As you might imagine, products with Retinoic Acid in are certainly appealing for maturer skin or those looking to add in an “anti-ageing” element to their routine. Retinol works at a deeper level than most acids, so they’re safe to use with acid exfoliants AHAs and BHAs - however remember Elsie’s patch test advice. Overuse can cause dryness or irritation, so do your research first and find a product that works for you.
Ascorbic Acid might not sound familiar, however you’re likely to be familiar with what its more commonly known as - Vitamin C. High in antioxidants, Vitamin C isn’t just good for your body, but it can be equally as effective when used topically in skincare too. The powerful antioxidant helps “repair skin, aiding skin turnover and brightening your complexion” says Elsie.
Found in food but also naturally occurring in the body, all skin types can benefit from this ingredient in the right dose and format. It’s often found in serums and moisturisers as Vitamin C can help defend the skin from environmental factors such as pollution and free radicals. However, always make sure you layer up with an SPF as products with Ascorbic Acid in can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. All in all, this antioxidant is a great one for brighter, smoother and more protected skin.
So, there you have it. Acids might sound scary, but these naturally-derived or occurring ingredients can pack a punch in your skincare routine. Armed with the right knowledge, it’s easier than you think to find the right acid for you. With a little skincare science under your belt, you’ll be reaping the rewards in no time.
Words: Lucy Vincent
Cover image: Romain Duquesne for Glossier